Ever since he set up his studio on Chicago’s South Side in the early 2000s, artist Theaster Gates has been steadily remaking the neighborhood one building at a time. His nonprofit, the Rebuild Foundation, uses culturally driven projects as a catalyst for redevelopment, and has recently completed its most ambitious undertaking to date: the renovation of a 20,000-square-foot bank built in 1923.
The Stony Island Arts Bank now serves as the Rebuild Foundation’s hub. It opened this weekend as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, a three-month-long festival on design. A contemporary art gallery, events space, community center, and archive, the Bank is about 10 miles south of downtown. Embedded in a historically marginalized neighborhood, it’s far removed physically from the Biennial’s main exhibition, but it’s perhaps more meaningful and relevant to the transformative potential of architecture in the city.
“Here we are in the middle of the hood—make no doubt about it,” Gates says. “You will not find a General Cab to get you downtown. You will need Uber. Given that, what can a place like the Arts Bank offer the Biennial? I think it offers a way of understanding that great things could happen anywhere if we invest in it.”
The bank had fallen into severe disrepair when Gates purchased it for $1 from the city in 2012. Two massive skylights were completely broken and rain and snow damaged virtually every inch of the building. Gates completely retrofitted the bank from to bottom. In the process, he preserved some of the blistered paint, the rusted vault, and the cracked plaster moldings as a way to keep in dialog with the structure’s past.
Gates plans to use the basement as a music venue, the ground floor as a bar and gallery, and the second floor as the Rebuild Foundation’s library and community space. The vinyl archive of Frankie Knuckles—who is regarded as the “Godfather of House Music“—has a new home on the Bank’s upper story, and the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will house slide libraries at the Stony Island Arts Bank.
The venue and its resources are open to the public—it becomes a sort of living room for the neighborhood.
“Architecture becomes a complex envelope that can carry both the high and the low, the international and the very local, the rich and the poor,” Gates says. “Only when those things start to conflate in really beautiful ways can we have a redemptive architecture. It’s only when lots of very different kinds of people feel like they can go into a building and that the building would be welcoming to them—even if it’s the highest form of architectural ‘impressario-ness’ possible.”
Seventeen different developers tried—unsuccessfully—to rehabilitate the site, and Gates says a grassroots approach was essential for his success. Instead of taking out a conventional loan or working with a known property developer, the Rebuild Foundation bankrolled the project through donations and by selling marble remnants from the site as “Bank Bonds” during Art Basel in 2013.
“Projects like this require belief more than they require funding,” Gates says. “If there’s not a kind of belief, motivation, and critical aggregation of people who believe with you in a project like this, it cannot happen. The city is starting to realize that there might be other ways of imagining upside beside ‘return on investment’ and financial gain.”
That Gates was able to get the Stony Island Arts Bank up and running offers a compelling example of how Chicago can reimagine vacant structures. Moreover, it serves as a model of how design can spark revitalization in a neighborhood. It’s something that could work in other rust-belt cities that share similar challenges in underserved and underutilized urban zones.
“What we celebrate in the Arts Bank is that a kind of architecturally high and significant thing could live in black space,” Gates says. “For me, this work is a kind of social and intellectual grappling of what it means to have great architecture become great again in a place where people could imagine throwing resources toward a thing might not be the smartest.”